Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Bless our families, bless our children. Choose from our homes those needed for your work.”
I knelt with my family at the Vigil of All Saints and prayed the Archdiocesan Prayer for Vocations of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul. We pray this prayer at every Mass at my parish, but that evening as my son was dressed as a priest-saint and my daughters dressed as saints who were religious sisters in preparation for the All Saints party, I hoped that God would choose all those from my home to do his work.
Perhaps it is a bold request and hope to desire my family to be like that of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who dreamt of and gave all of their children into religious life. Yet, I only think of it because I have felt that these saints are kindred spirits to my family, especially in the importance they placed on a prayerful, God centered family life that was separate from the influences of secular society. I also feel bold in hoping for it because of the sacramental graces of marriage, which can transform all of our human efforts into something better.
I am going to make the claim that within the vocation to marriage and family life there is another calling to a more contemplative or more active family life. I see it in the Catholic families that I know, who all carefully discern each new activity, schooling and job choice before God. There are those who live out their family call with busy, active schedules, taking part in serving God in an active way. Then there are those who prefer to center their family life on being at home together, purposefully limiting their activities outside the home. Their call is to serve God in a more contemplative way.
The family of Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, I would say, was a more contemplative family life. They are perhaps the exemplar of them. Franciscan Fr. Stéphane-Joseph Piat, in his book The Story of a Family, talks about the supernatural charity between the parents and the children and the sisters toward each other, which ultimately rose to the level of spiritual friendship. Fr. Piat gives details about how the family avoided conversing too much with society to prevent envy in their daughters but also to protect their purity of heart. They lived a separated life where the things of God were the most important.
Their home life, from which they ran their lacemaking business, was very God-centered, with the parents waking up early for 5:30 a.m. Mass. They guided their children very carefully into the life of virtue, sternly correcting them, but showing great affection as well. Heaven was a regular topic of conversation as well as any other spiritual topic. St. Louis was inclined to study and contemplation, and took time regularly for it. St. Zélie always had spiritual insight and encouragement for her children, writing to the ones in school and guiding the little ones at home. She prayed continually for them to be saints. They allowed charity to guide their home life toward each other and in their generosity toward those outside the family.
One thought I found very profound in Fr. Piat’s account of the Martin family is the idea of parents having “souls of religious” that they pass down to their children. He says in these families, “Their home furnishes a concrete example of the influence of the family atmosphere in the development of that high vocation” (Ch. 13). Both Sts. Louis and Zélie had at first aspired to religious life, but were called to marriage to each other instead. This desire for closeness to God was achieved through their sacramental marriage to each other. Their love for each other was rooted in their love for Him. Their love for their children was from him as well.
My husband and I have felt the draw to live a more contemplative family life. Perhaps it has to do with the years of vocational discernment we had before we met, or perhaps it is related to our inclinations to study and discuss philosophical and theological topics. We home school and build our family life around these things highlighting literature, music, and art as well. We intentionally limit activities outside the home for the sake of our family have the time and leisure for prayer, study, and growing in love of each other. The things we do choose to do are for the sake of Christian friendships. But I am also aware that this is not how God calls every family to live.
Fr. Piat reflects that modern readers may “think [the Martin family life] rather restricted, too much of a hothouse, too wrapped up in its secret riches.” But I think that modern families can find great comfort in this family that became holy in the midst of an increasingly secular France. While some families are called to go out in their unity and work for the Christian transformation of society, others are called to do it through prayer and charity. It is like comparing the active life of the Missionaries of Charity to the contemplative life of cloistered Carmelites. Both are important for the Church, and both are beautiful vocations.
St. Louis wrote in a letter to his daughters while traveling, “Everything which I have seen is grand, but it is still the beauty of the earth, and one’s heart remains unsatisfied until it beholds the joy of the infinite beauty that is God. We shall soon have the joy of being together again. It is the beauty of family life that comes nearest to Heaven.” The family of St. Thérèse shows us just how much grace can perfect human existence, even in the midst of the great suffering the family underwent during their lives, or perhaps especially because of their suffering. They were called to imitate the Holy Family, and your family is as well. God calls all of us differently while drawing us all to Him.
What is the vocational call of your family? Where is God leading you?